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177. Job 17:11, Hopelessness Redux

 

11 My days are past, my plans are torn apart, 

   Even the wishes of my heart.


The thoughts of verses 8-10 help prepare the way for this verse, Job’s third sentence of hopelessness in the chapter. We are getting used to his statements of combined grief and despair, but 17:11 arrests us nevertheless by its terrible terseness. Like verse 1, which it imitates in content, it consists of three two-word phrases. The first is simple to translate, the second a bit more difficult and the third even more difficult.  Though very similar to the NASB, I would go with the following:

 

            “My days are over, my plans snapped, the desires of my heart.”

 

That Job can state that his days are over is nothing new. He has been either hinting at that or explicitly saying that for several chapters. Earlier in the chapter he had used language of destruction (chabal), extinction (zaak), or dimness of eye (kahah) to describe the imminence of his demise. Now, utilizing a typical verb for crossing over (e.g., land, a river), he speaks as if his days have all “crossed over” (abar). Though it is somewhat  repetitive, Job’s plaint never fails to move us.

 

The second phrase is variously translated:  “my plans are shattered/purposes are broken off/thoughts are dissipated.” Each of its two words invites consideration. The word translated “plan” at first confuses us. It is zimmah (29x). In every other instance where that precise form occurs, it is rendered “lewdness” or “wickedness.” “They have committed lewdness (zimmah) and folly in Israel” (Judges 20:6); “Near are those who pursue wickedness (zimmah); they are far from your Torah” (Psalm 119:150). Job uses it in one other place (31:11), and it means either something “lustful” or “heinous” (31:11). Such a reading obviously doesn’t fit here, so what does one do?

 

One looks more generally at the verb underlying zimmah as well as other nouns formed off that verb. Zamam (13x) is translated “to plan, scheme, plot, purpose, intend.” It first appears in the Tower of Babel narrative, where God laments the building of the tower, observing that now “all which they plan/purpose (zamam) to do—nothing of that will be withheld from them” (Genesis 11:6). We see the roots of the “wicked plan” idea through its use in Psalm 31:13 and 37:12, where one has “scheming” in the first instance or the wicked “plotting” agains the righteous in the second. But the basic meaning of zamam is just to make plans. Another of the nouns formed from zamam, mezimmah (19x) can carry the meaning of plan, discretion, evil plan. Job twice uses mezimmah, once in a negative and once in a neutral sense. Its neutral sense appears in the final conversation between God and Job. Job says, “no purpose (mezimmah) of your can be thwarted/turned aside” (Job 42:2; see also 21:27)  [Note:  At least at this point we think that Job could never characterize God's 'plans' as evil. . .]

 

Thus, even though zimmah seemingly always means one’s wicked or lustful ideas, and mezimmah may be neutral or negative, I will take zimmah in 17:11 as Job’s (positive) plans, the plans for his life. It would stop the show, however, if we would try to take it in its usual sense of wicked or lewd plans. If we take seriously one of the earliest points in this book, that destabilization of language is one of the devices of Job, then we may have another example of that here, though I will follow the unanimous opinion of translators here.  

 

The verb used to describe these plans is nathaq (27x), a very powerful verb that usually gives the sense of tearing something away from something else, still leaving things attached, though loosened. That is, it is different from the verb “to rend” or “tear” (qara), where robes or garments are rent in two; it emphasizes more the separation by tearing of flesh from flesh (Leviticus 22:24) or straps from a shoe (Isaiah 5:27).  One is disqualified from the priesthood, for example, if one’s testicles are crushed or cut or “torn away” (nathaq)—perhaps separated from one’s pelvic region in some way. But, as with many verbs, its meaning expanded over time to include a snapping of bonds or cords. Thus Samson, when confined by the ropes of the Philistines, “snapped” (nathaq) them from his arms (Judges 16:9, 12). The Psalms pick up on this use of nathaq, especially when the proud kings of the earth vow to break the bonds (nathaq) of the Lord (2:3; see also 107:14). Jeremiah, using a sentiment that is surprisingly similar to our passage in Job, says, “My tent is plundered; all my cords are snapped (nathaq); my children have gone from me and are no more” (Jeremiah 10:20).  Job’s plans, whether they be for good or ill, are now snapped. They are now useless, unceremoniously and irretrievably broken.

 

The third phrase also has a difficult noun that has been translated two ways: possessions or desires. The word is the rare moresh (occurring elsewhere only in Isaiah 14:25; Obadiah 17). Many scholars take it as derived from yarash,“to possess/inherit,” but increasingly moresh is being read as derived from aras, “to betroth/to desire.” The single appearance of the noun aresheth, derived from aras, is rendered “desire” or “request.” Thus, most scholars now are reading the final phrase of Job 17:11 as “the desires of my heart.” The clause differs from the two preceding in that it has no verb, yet its meaning is clear.

 

My somewhat torturous journey through the words both shows the tentative nature of our translation (and knowledge) but also the reasons for seeing 17:11 as expressing similar ideas to 17:1 and 7. As mentioned, it seems as if these three verses anchor the chapter. In between (and after v 11), Job goes on short linguistic journeys that really aren’t that productive, but he seems to repair to and find comfort in the statements of abject hopelessness. The power of his vision in 16:19 has not yet given him the confidence that his way or his case is clear. What is on his mind now is his vulnerability and proximity to death.